Pharmacologic immunosuppression

Front Biosci. 2004 Jan 1:9:411-20. doi: 10.2741/1249.


Clinical organ transplantation only became a viable treatment option after the advent of effective pharmacologic immunosuppression. Azathioprine and steroids were among the first drugs available for pharmacologic immunosuppression allowed for the first long-term successes in kidney and liver transplantation, though survivors experienced significant adverse effects of the immunosuppression. Azathioprine is an antimetabolite which inhibits the de novo and salvage pathways of purine synthesis. This results in lymphocyte suppression but also toxicity to bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and liver. Mycophenolate mofetil (MMF), another antimetabolite drug, inhibits only the de novo purine synthesis pathway. Corticosteroids cause immunosuppression mainly by sequestration of CD4+ T-lymphocytes in the reticuloendothelial system and by inhibiting the transcription of cytokines. Corticosteroids have adverse effects on virtually every system in the body, producing many dose-limiting problems such as osteoporosis, obesity and glucose intolerance. The introduction of cyclosporine in 1983 allowed for further improvements in graft survival, and the incidence of acute rejection decreased. Cyclosporine and the more recently-introduced tacrolimus compose the class of immunosuppressive agents called calcineurin inhibitors. By binding calcineurin and preventing its translocation into the nucleus these drugs prevent transcription and subsequent secretion of IL-2. These drugs produce varying degrees of nephrotoxicity, neurotoxicity and glucose intolerance. Rapamycin also inhibits IL-2 expression, though by interaction with the mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) protein. The use of antibody to produce immunosuppression began with polyclonal sera developed in animals such as horses or goats. The mechanism by which polyclonal sera causes immunosuppression is not well understood, though cell-mediated cytotoxicity of lymphocytes in the circulation may be one major effect. In contrast, the monoclonal antibody OKT3 is specific for the T-cell receptor (TCR)/CD3 complex, thus preventing activation of T-lymphocutes. Most recently, human and chimeric murine monoclonal antibodies daclizumab and basiliximab have provided effective induction therapy with virtually no adverse effects. While the improved efficacy and decreased adverse effects immunosuppressive agents account for much of the progress in the field of transplantation, current immunosuppression medications not perfect. Ideally, medications would inducing graft tolerance while avoiding generalized immunosuppression and non-immunologic adverse effects. Future research will likely focus on molecular- and gene-level mechanisms to achieve this goal.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Antimetabolites / pharmacology*
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors*
  • Cyclosporine / pharmacology
  • Fingolimod Hydrochloride
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppression Therapy*
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Immunotherapy
  • Muromonab-CD3 / pharmacology
  • Propylene Glycols / pharmacology
  • Sphingosine / analogs & derivatives


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Antimetabolites
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Muromonab-CD3
  • Propylene Glycols
  • Cyclosporine
  • Fingolimod Hydrochloride
  • Sphingosine